I gave my first speech as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DExEU today, folwoing my promotion two weeks ago.
As the representative for DExEU and the Government, I was responsible for responding to an e-petition which attracted nearly 140,000 signatories from the public. My full speech is below:
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for leading the debate, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, on whether the UK should leave the EU immediately. I must say that I very much enjoyed listening to his contribution and those of many hon. Members today. He has been a passionate campaigner for Brexit for many years. I applaud the sensible, pragmatic and optimistic message that he voiced and set out, which was echoed by many hon. Members who took part in the debate.
I was particularly struck by the chord of unity and agreement and the consensus that emerged from this debate. From Members who took opposing sides in the referendum debate, from all over the country and from different political parties, there has been a total consensus that the UK should not walk away from the negotiations now, should continue to build on the progress that has been achieved and should work towards seeking that new, dynamic relationship with the EU through an agreement. I share that optimism and pragmatism that has been expressed today by many Members. I also share their call for unity, which was particularly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham)—a unity that unites all of us behind a shared vision of a Britain of the future: one that is global, open, dynamic and prosperous.
Combined with that optimism and that call for unity is a shared acknowledgment of the need for patience. Again, that has been voiced by many today, including the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie). Time is needed so that we can make the best of Brexit and strike a successful and prosperous agreement with the EU.
The Government’s position has been very clear: the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and there must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the backdoor and, importantly, no second referendum. To do so would undermine our democracy and destroy the vital trust that lies between citizen and state, between voter and representative. That commitment to leave the EU is steadfast on the part of the Government. It means leaving the customs union and the single market when we leave the EU. It means regaining control over our laws, our border and our money. It means restoring our ability to be a leader in global trade and to set our own independent immigration, agricultural and fisheries policies. It means benefits for consumers, businesses and our democracy.
The Prime Minister has also been very clear that the UK will leave the EU at 11 pm on 29 March 2019—a date that is fixed as a matter of law under the article 50 process. This will reduce uncertainty to businesses and the public: we will leave the EU no later and no sooner than that fixed point.
The position respects the vote of the people in the referendum of 2016 to leave the EU. It also reflects the will of Parliament. The Government have successfully triggered article 50, pursuant to an Act of Parliament passed last year in the Commons on Second Reading by 498 votes to 114—an overwhelming majority—and they are negotiating for a good outcome that works for both the people and businesses in the UK and those in the EU.
As someone who campaigned to leave the European Union, I understand that those who signed the petition are impatient to leave the EU and are asking the Government to leave the negotiations before 2019. However, the Government are responding in a responsible manner, balancing the needs of adapting to our new post-Brexit landscape with ensuring that we are in the best possible position to really grasp all the advantages that Brexit will bring, so that we can have a smooth and successful Brexit. That is why an implementation period is so important.
Furthermore, we do not believe that the “punishment deal” mentioned in the petition will come to pass. Striking a free trade agreement with the European Union will be mutually beneficial to both parties. We want a rich, prosperous new partnership with our European friends and allies, and we believe that that is eminently possible. Seeking the best deal for the UK and maximising the benefits of leaving the EU, while maintaining the greatest possible access to EU markets and continuing to work with our European neighbours on common problems such as terrorism and security, is vital if we are to ensure that we manage the prospects of life outside the EU.
In addition, after withdrawal the UK will bring an end to the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. As the EU has confirmed, we have already made significant progress towards a good deal, as was set out in the Government’s joint report in December, striking agreement on citizens’ rights, on a financial settlement and in relation to Northern Ireland. For me, and for the Government, that provides great confidence that we can achieve a more positive deal going forward, and significantly reduces the chance of a no-deal scenario.
However, let me be clear: while we want and expect a good deal with the EU, the Government have a duty to plan for a range of eventualities, including the unlikely scenario where we leave the EU without a deal. That is common sense and it is prudent. Our plans are carefully developed to provide the flexibility to respond to a range of negotiated outcomes and to prepare us for the unlikely eventuality of not securing a deal.
Some of the Government’s planning has already become evident. Each Department has a clear understanding of how withdrawing from the EU may affect its existing policies in a wide range of outcomes. To support Departments, the Treasury has already given those such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Home Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Transport, nearly £700 million to prepare for Brexit, and is making an additional £3 billion of funding available over the next two years.
On a legislative front, as well as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the Government are already introducing other legislation, such as our Trade Bill, which will allow the UK to develop an independent trade strategy. The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill will lay the groundwork for an outstanding international sanctions regime, and the customs Bill will set a framework for delivering an effective customs regime. Legislation on nuclear safeguards arising from the UK Parliament will deliver a regime for the future landscape on nuclear safeguards.
Although the Government do not want or expect a no-deal scenario, we have a duty to plan for all eventualities, so we continue to develop those plans to ensure that we are prepared when we leave the EU at in March 2019. Alongside the necessary legislation, we are procuring new systems and recruiting new staff where necessary to ensure a smooth exit regardless of the outcomes. However, to walk away from the negotiating table now and leave immediately would be counterproductive and unnecessary, especially in light of the progress made in December on the first stage of the negotiations.
First, consider the financial settlement. Far from the punishment deal anticipated by the petition, we have achieved a good deal for UK taxpayers. Britain is a nation that honours its obligations, and we will honour our share of the commitments made during our membership while ending the vast sums of money going to the EU every year. Crucially, we have ensured that our rebate will continue to apply, and that the EU will reduce the settlement accordingly. The settlement may be paid over the course of several years, but the Government estimate that it will be between £35 billion and £39 billion, equivalent to roughly four years of our current budget contribution, around two of which we expect will be covered by the implementation period.
As the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) pointed out in his speech, the money is not a divorce bill. We have agreed a fair financial settlement with the EU, enabling us to move to the next stage of negotiations. We will soon see significant savings from our payments to the EU, compared with what we would have paid had we stayed in. We will continue to benefit from EU programmes under the budget plan. No UK region will lose out on EU budget funding, and anyone who gets European funding—local councils, regional bodies, UK businesses, scientific researchers, Erasmus students or charities—can continue to bid for and receive funding until the end of their projects.
From the beginning, the Prime Minister has been clear that safeguarding the rights of EU citizens is her priority. In her open letter in October, she made it clear that we
“hugely value the contributions that EU nationals make to the economic, social and cultural fabric of the UK”,
and that we want them to stay. We are pleased that that commitment is reflected in the joint report of December. The agreement reached in principle will provide citizens with certainty about their rights going forward, enabling families who have built lives together in the EU and UK to stay together. The agreement gives people more certainty not only about residence but about healthcare, pensions and other benefits. The agreement will cover only those people defined in the withdrawal agreement. Anyone arriving in the UK after the specified date who does not fall in that category will be subject to future arrangements.
Those who signed the petition may well have had concerns about the European Court of Justice. At present, the UK is bound by all ECJ decisions; hundreds of decisions every year have effect in the UK, whether or not the case originated in the UK. That will end. The UK will take back control of its laws, and UK courts will have the final say on UK cases. EU citizens’ rights in the UK will be upheld by implementing the agreement into UK law.
in the UK, EU citizens’ rights will be upheld by implementing the agreement in UK law. In the interest of the consistent interpretation of citizens’ rights, the UK has agreed that a narrow group of issues will be referred to the ECJ for interpretation, with due regard to whether relevant case law already exists. That will be up to our courts and they will make the final judgment, not the ECJ. In practical terms, that is a very limited role: our courts refer only two or three cases of that kind to the ECJ every year. In any case, there is a sunset clause after which that voluntary reference to the ECJ will come to an end. In short, any continuing role for the ECJ in our legal system will be voluntary, narrowly defined, and time limited.
A further reason why the Government seek to continue their negotiations with the EU rather than to leave before March 2019 is the advantage gained by securing an implementation period, as set out by the Prime Minister in her Florence speech. The implementation period will be strictly time-limited and mutually beneficial —it will be in everyone’s interests. Let me be clear: it is about not delay, but preparation.
An implementation period is essential to make the most of Brexit. We want to leave the EU, but we want to leave successfully. We want to base the long-term trajectory of our country as an independent nation outside the EU on prosperity, growth and taking back control. The best way to achieve that is by causing the least disruption.
An implementation period is important because businesses and public services will have to plan for only one set of changes in the relationship between the UK and the EU. At the end of that period, all our systems, procedures and structure will be in place and ready to go. There will not be one set of changes in 2019 and one at a later date. Many hon. Members have spoken on behalf of the business community, which has been clear about the importance of the implementation period to its planning. An implementation period provides certainty, which is a clear advantage and one of the key reasons why the Government are seeking to make a beneficial deal with the EU, rather than to leave prior to March 2019.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions to this interesting debate. To reiterate, there is no doubt that we are leaving the EU, the customs union and the single market. We are seeking a new future partnership with the EU in the second phase of negotiations, and we neither want nor expect a “no deal” or a “punishment deal”. We are confident that we can achieve a mutually beneficial deal that delivers on the will of the British people.
The next phase will not be easy—far from it. We can expect difficult moments and challenges.
It is now important for talks to move forward so that we can work towards agreeing the terms of our future relationship. We want to maintain the beneficial trading relationship between the two parties. We aspire to continue to co-operate on an array of areas. We also want to lead the world in global trade by striking trade agreements with countries outside the European Union. We need to devise our own independent immigration policy and restore judicial sovereignty to UK courts. As the Prime Minister set out, we will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 in accordance with article 50. We want to give businesses and the public the certainty that they need to ensure a smooth transition.
As elected representatives, we all have a duty to honour the result of that historic 2016 vote. It was a vote of confidence in Britain, in our democracy, in our country forging a new path, and in a country free to harness its people’s abilities, talents and genius to develop a new, dynamic and beneficial future for our country. It is eminently possible that we will strike an agreement between the EU and the UK. Let us get on with the job and deliver for the British people.
The full debate can be accessed on the House of Commons Hansard, available here.